Apr 28, 2020

The Origin of My Peter Pan Nightmares

Peter Pan has a long, sinister, and disturbing history.  He began in the grieving imagination of 8-year old J.M. Barrie, when his brother David died in a skating accident the day before his 14th birthday -- at least a dead boy would stay a boy forever.  He took shape in Barrie's early novels about dead and dying boys, Better Dead (1888) and Sentimental Tommy (1896), and in stories Barrie told to the five Llewelyn-Davies boys, whom he met while walking his St.Bernard in Kensington Gardens in 1897.  And when his wife, actress Mary Ansell, was swept away by a mere boy, 24 year old Gilbert Cannan, in 1908 (by the way, Cannan published a novel called Peter Homunculus in 1909).

There is no indication that Barrie had any pederastic intentions with the Llewelyns.  Boys and men mingled without suspicion in those days.  In the stories, however, Captain Hook has an arguably homoerotic love-hate relationship with the Dead Boy.  When one considers that Barrie's Captain Hook and Daddy were played by the same actor, one wonders about the elder Barrie, a strict,conservative, Calvinist.

The baby who leapt from his tram in Kensington Gardens and lived in trees like a bird (that is, died) first appeared as a named character in J.M. Barrie's very Victorian childhood-equals-death novel The Little White Bird (1902).  Next came a stage play, Peter Pan, Or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (1904), based on the pantomime tradition, which is why Peter Pan and the Lost Boys were all played by women, and there was a dying fairy (the Edwardians loved long, slow, sentimental death scenes as much as we love things blowing up).  George du Marier, uncle to the Llewelyn Davies boys, played both Captain Hook and the Darling kids' father.  Hints of child abuse, anyone?

Next Barrie adapted the stage play into a novel,  Peter Pan and Wendy(1911).   Both play and novel became sensations, especially during World War I, with so  many boys dying in the trenches of Europe -- but they were forever young.

And adaptations began: news plays, movies, novels, cartoons, stories, songs, statues, with the dead boy becoming more playful, less sinister to keep up with the changing times.  My favorite is Malcolm, the evil Peter Pan of Once Upon a Time (Robbie Kay, shown with some of his Lost Boys in the top photo).  My least favorite is the 2003 movie version,  with a barely-pubescent Jeremy Sumpter in a pedophile-dream costume, and a hetero-romance "girls are the meaning of life" conclusion.

A 1954 Broadway musical Peter Pan stayed true to its pantomime roots by casting a woman as the Dead Boy, and an older woman at that: 40-year old Mary Martin, who had previously starred in Annie Get Your Gun and South Pacific.  Cyrill Richard played both Captain Hook and George Darling  for more Freudian nightmares.  Although it was the exuberant 1950s, some other disturbing elements were retained:
1. The family is called "Darling," which is ridiculous.
2. The nanny is a dog in a nanny's cap played by a man.
3. Wendy sews Peter's shadow onto his feet. Imagine how painful that would be!
4. Blackmailing the audience to clap in order to keep a fairy from dying.
5. Amputation, mutilation, bombing, death, and near-death everywhere you turn.  Fun!
6. Growing up means dying.

Nevertheless, Neverland returned to Broadway in 1979, 1990, 1991, and 1998 (with Peter Pan played by Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby). 

The entire cast except for the children reprised their roles for a 1960 tv version -- restaged, so you were actually watching and hearing a stage show. This version was rebroadcast in 1963, 1966, 1973, 1989, and 1991. 

Photo: Kent Fletcher, who played Michael in 1960, forever a child in his only other film role, The Lord of the Flies (1963).

I think I saw part of 1966 rebroadcast.  I would have been 5 or 5 1/2 years old, too young for bizarre dog-human hybrids, shadows sewn onto bare flesh, murderous pirate-fathers, dying fairies, and growing up as the equivalent of death.  Since then Peter Pan has often appeared in my nightmares.


  1. I honestly had more experience with Peter Pan after the Jackson trial, so that always colored the novel for me.

  2. I love the Disney animated version which I think is the best even if that had a dark twist with the early tragic end of Bobby Driscoll- the Disney child star who supplied the voice and died too young from drugs.

    1. Bobby Driscoll was bisexual. I thought I had a "celebrity hookup" story about him, but it was just a reference to Johnny Sheffield getting hit on by him.

  3. I guess I was lucky: The Disney animation was my introduction to Peter Pan. Fairies only started dying when a human claimed they did not exist. And they could be saved by clapping your hands. Peter Pan was in my view immortal, not dead. Therefore I was unprepared for the dark scene in 'Hook', with Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan, played off the screen by Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook. The oldest of the Lost Boys, who took over as leader after Peter had left to grow up, is killed by Hook in a sword fight. So they were not immortal after all, just suspended in time!


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